Authors: Marianne Knightly
Byron scoffed. “Hardly surprising,
, that you’re in over your head. You should just ask the other ministers for help in creating the budget. It’s unconscionable that in today’s day and age one Minister decides it all.”
“That’s interesting, Byron. I never seemed to recall you felt so antagonistic towards my predecessor, Calvin, but perhaps I was mistaken.”
Byron’s fair face turned a shade of bright red. “I don’t have to sit here and listen to this.”
“Then don’t,” Nate said easily. “There’s the door. If you need to meet with me about anything else, make an appointment with my assistant. I assure you, I won’t be as hospitable the next time you barge into my office.” Byron harrumphed and stormed out, again without a bow or respectful address.
Tim sighed and stood up. “I apologize, Your Highness. Byron’s just worried about what the next budget could mean. We all are, I suppose. There are rumours.”
Nate narrowed his eyes. With Byron in charge of immigration, and Tim in charge of labor reporting, there was a chance they could be working together, if they were involved at all. He would need to tread carefully. “There are always rumours, Tim. You never seemed to notice them much before.”
“Times change, Your Highness.” This time, Tim bowed before he left the room.
Alone again, Nate pondered the ridiculous meeting he’d just had. Byron certainly wasn’t the first to think Nate shouldn’t have this job, but he was one of the first to vocalize it to his face. Was Nate reaching when he thought Tim or Byron or both could be involved in this mess? Was it their underlings who were really responsible?
As Nate glanced at the piles of papers across his desk, the two monitors filled with never-ending numbers, and a sky that had already begun to darken in the early afternoon, he felt despair. When his phone buzzed, he huffed a sigh of frustration again. Katya. He didn’t want to deal with her anymore, or all of this intrigue. He needed a break.
Perhaps he could go to the kitchens and take advantage of a succulent pastry, and maybe also take advantage of Charlie. Seeing her, however, would only remind him of the tough choices he needed to make, and force him to once again put the benefit of all above the benefit of a few.
When it came to a kingdom, one person never meant more than its citizens, not even the King himself.
Nate took a deep breath, asked his assistant to bring in some fresh coffee, and set back to work.
Charlie finished arranging the sampling tray. The state dinner to be held in a few days was for the Australian Prime Minister and his wife. Though Charlie had never been to Australia, she’d spent a great deal of time researching what sorts of desserts and sweets they may want to eat.
For today’s sampling, she’d made Pavlova, a typical Australian dessert. Other local favorites included a version of lamington, a type of sponge cake, and Anzac biscuits for their tea service.
After her research, she’d also discovered the Prime Minister was a native of South Australia and, since he was also bringing his young daughter, thought they may enjoy a native dessert called frog cake, which was essentially just sponge cake covered in fondant made to look like a frog, and served like petit fours with individual servings. Charlie wasn’t sure what the Queen would like, but she hoped she liked some of it, anyway; it would be tough to start from scratch again.
Charlie added a small menu describing the items to the tray and asked one of the other waitstaff to take it over to the dining room where Coco and the Queen were meeting. When it was carried away from the kitchen, Charlie let out a deep breath.
Glancing around at the mess and pots piled high in the sink, she contemplated what to tackle next when her stomach let out a very unladylike growl. Despite the fact that she worked in a palace kitchen, Charlie often forgot to eat during the day. A quick glance at the clock let her know that her late-night picnic – if she went – was still hours away.
She walked into the main kitchen, smiling at the frantic energy in the room, which was actually a carefully coordinated dance. “Behind you,” one sous chef called as she made her way between the row of stoves and the backs of others chopping nearby. “Flame up,” another called as they poured alcohol into a pan, sending bright reddish-orange flames shooting high into the air until the alcohol burned off and the flames died down.
Charlie made her way around the kitchen to a small dining room set up for palace workers. Not everyone on staff took advantage of the free palace lunches, and the dining room was mostly empty due to the time of day. Staff usually filtered in and out, eating quickly before running back to finish their tasks for the day. Having such a large palace meant that some staff had to travel quite a ways to get their food, so they often brought their own lunches instead.
As Charlie loaded a bowl with a thick beef stew, she wished she could make it easier for the staff. The palace actually boasted four kitchens – one essentially at each corner of the palace – but the other three had fallen into disrepair. Perhaps, if she did get Coco’s job, she could work to reopen at least one of them.
Charlie was lost in thought, absently eating her meal, so she didn’t hear her name being called. It wasn’t until one of the waitstaff shook her shoulder that she finally turned, causing her filled spoon to spill some dark broth, marring her white chef’s coat. “What’s going on?” she asked as she dabbed uselessly at the stain on her clothes.
“Coco wants to see you,” he said.
“What?” She shot out of her chair, almost knocking the whole bowl onto her in the process; she saved it just in time. “Was there something wrong with the sampling tray?”
He just shrugged. “Beats me. It was still intact when I delivered it, if that’s what you’re worried about. Coco wants you to join her and the Queen upstairs.”
He just laughed. “First time meeting royalty? Don’t worry, she doesn’t bite.” He winked and walked away.
Charlie tried to calm the panic running rampant inside her. She took a deep breath, then another. Looking down, she realized she didn’t have time to change her coat; she would just have to show up as she was. She was meeting the Queen – the Queen! – and she looked awful. When she’d started working at the palace, she’d been trained on how to greet the royals and how to curtsy. She hoped she didn’t make a mess of things, like she had yesterday.
As she began walking, thinking of yesterday only reminded her of Nate. She was meeting Nate’s mother, the Queen of Valleria.
Holy shit. Holy shit.
You can do this
, she told herself.
Everything will be completely fine
As Charlie stepped into one of smaller formal dining rooms upstairs, she saw Queen Genevieve at the head of the table and Coco at a seat to her left, both of them poring over stacks of paper and sampling from nearby trays of food, including Charlie’s. The Queen’s presence seemed to fill the whole room.
As she approached them, her hands twisting the edge of her coat, she couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the Queen and Nate. Their eyes were the same shape, though the Queen’s were a few shades darker brown than Nate’s. Her dark blond hair she also saw in Nate’s multi-hued mane of blonde and brown, though the Queen’s had some gray and white strands. For a mother of nine children, she was curvy but still fairly slim, at least in the clothes she was wearing.
Coco spotted her first. “Charlotte, thank you for coming.”
That Coco was using her full name reminded her of the formality of the occasion.
, she reminded herself,
. “I came as soon as I could, Your Majesty.” Charlie mentally went through the list as she curtsied: left foot behind her, bend the knees, don’t trip, dip the head, don’t trip, stand up. Charlie let out a quick breath when she managed to finish her curtsy without falling over. Success!
When she glanced up, it was to find a warm smile on the Queen’s face and a hand outstretched. Charlie blinked and, after a discreet nod from Coco, shook the Queen’s hand. “Yes, thank you for coming, Charlotte.”
“I apologize for how I’m dressed, Your Majesty.”
“You work in the kitchens, my dear, it’s nothing I didn’t expect. Do have a seat.”
After another nod from Coco, Charlie took a seat on the Queen’s right. Terrified to ask if anything was wrong, she remained silent, waiting for the Queen to speak first.
“I must say, I thoroughly appreciate the research you’ve done, Charlotte. The desserts you selected were inspired.” The Queen took another bite of the lamington in front of her, closing her eyes to revel in the taste. “Just delicious.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
“No, thank you. Coco and her staff make things so easy for me, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.”
Unsure what to say, and unsure why she had been summoned in the first place – though hearing the Queen praise her baking was wonderful – she turned to Coco, who gave her a long look before speaking. “I asked Charlotte to join us for another reason than the menu, Your Majesty.”
“Oh?” the Queen asked while she made some notes. “You know, Coco, I think we’ll serve the lamington for the formal state dinner, but we can serve the Pavlova with lunch and the frog cake and Anzac biscuits during tea. The Australians will be arriving first thing in the morning the day after next and we’ve got a lot to do before then.”
Coco merely nodded. “Of course, Your Majesty. May I speak freely?”
The Queen stopped writing and put down her pen; apparently, she knew when Coco meant business. “Of course, Coco, dear. What’s going on?”
“Well, it’s hard for me to say, Your Majesty, but the time’s coming for me to retire.”
“Oh! Really, Coco?” The Queen reached out and took Coco’s hand, and they held onto each like two old friends. “Are you sure? Of course you’re sure. What can I do?”
Coco put her other hand on top of the Queen’s and held on tight. “There’s nothing to do, Your Majesty.”
“Oh, but you’ll at least stay through Alexander and Rebecca’s wedding, won’t you? I know he’d be terribly disappointed if you left before then. Who knows what the wedding will look like now, but we’d love to have you overseeing it all.”
Charlie wasn’t sure what that cryptic comment about the wedding meant, but Coco seemed to know. “I’ll still be around, Your Majesty, but it’s time for another to helm the kitchens. I’d like to recommend Charlotte for the job.”
The Queen blinked, then looked over at Charlie, who straightened even more in her chair, if that was possible. “Charlotte?”
Charlie was sure her face was bright red, and she wasn’t entirely sure she was still breathing.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Coco continued, her hands still joined with the Queen’s. “I know you may see it as an unusual choice, but I’d like you take my recommendation under consideration.”
“I see.” The Queen pulled her hand away from Coco’s to give Charlie a critical glare. Sitting so close to her, Charlie found herself mesmerized by the Queen’s eyes and she was once again reminded of Nate; it both calmed and worried her at the same time.
“How long have you been with the palace now, Charlotte?”
Charlie swallowed. “Al-almost a year now, Your Majesty.”
“You’re American originally, aren’t you? What made you come to Valleria?”
Charlie cleared her throat; her past was never easy to talk about, much less with a Queen during an unexpected job interview. She may murder Coco for not warning her ahead of time. “I don’t have any ties to America, Your Majesty, other than my birth. I’ve no more family there, and I came to Europe – and eventually Valleria – to continue my culinary education. I was working in a local bakery nearby when I was recommended for my current position in the palace kitchens.”
The Queen gestured for Coco to pour them all some tea; Charlie wasn’t sure she could hold the cup steady, but she’d try her damnedest not to make a fool of herself. God forbid she spill tea all over the Queen. “Do you live in the palace or in Valentia?”
“I live in the palace, Your Majesty, not in the capital anymore.”
The Queen smiled her thanks as Coco handed her a delicate teacup. “And do you want Coco’s position?”
Charlie’s own teacup rattled when she heard the Queen’s question, but she managed not to spill any – progress in her book. “I would be very honored to hold the position, Your Majesty.” Charlie put down the teacup and took a deep breath. If she didn’t speak up for herself, no one else would. “I realize there are others who have worked in the kitchens longer and are full Vallerian citizens. But I’m a very hard worker and I always strive for the best. If you know Coco, you know she wouldn’t have recommended me if that weren’t the case.”
The Queen nodded sagely. “Very true. You do understand that this position is one that works very closely with mostly myself but also with the King and Rebecca? She’ll be taking over more of my duties once she and Alex are married. You’ll have to take extended training in protocol and be point for any and all royal functions. You are essentially on call almost every day. Does that sound daunting to you?”
Charlie pursed her lips. “To be quite honest, Your Majesty, yes, it does sound daunting.”
The Queen merely laughed. It was a bright, wide laugh that set the few wrinkles on her face crinkling. “Good answer.”